June 7, 2007
Poland and the Jews:
Is it time to stop hating the country when positive changes are transforming it?
Web extras: Videos illuminate the paradoxical lives of today's Polish jews
Daniela and Kuba -- Jewish in Poland: Two Polish students describe how they came to be interested in Jewish life and culture. Is it time to stop hating Poland?
Last summer, as Hezbollah rockets rained down on northern Israel, a group of 15 Israeli teenagers from Nahariya were whisked away for two weeks' respite in Poland. In Israel, they'd spent their time hiding in bomb shelters; in Poland, they became guests of Lodz Mayor Jerzy Kropiwnicki and were treated to horseback riding, rock concerts, sightseeing trips and even Shabbat dinners complete with kosher food.
Many Jews still view Poland as the land of pogroms, persecution and prejudice; a terminally anti-Semitic and blood-drenched country where 3 million Jews were mercilessly murdered during World War II; a land dotted with death camps, desecrated cemeteries and deserted synagogues. What most Jews don't know is that Poland has changed radically over the past couple of decades, and these days, it is reaching out to Israel and to Jews --and not just socially, either.
As a member of the European Union, NATO and the World Trade Organization, Poland has become a land of economic opportunity. In fact, since the collapse of communism in 1989, many Israelis have been heavily investing in the country.
Elite Coffee purchased Poland's MK Café brand and has become one of the country's top coffee producers; Israel's Elran Group is a major financial partner in the newly opened Warsaw Hilton Hotel and Convention Center; and Israel's Elbit Systems has engaged in a joint venture with two Polish companies to produce unmanned reconnaissance aircraft for the Polish army and police.
Even Poland's public radio now broadcasts a daily 30-minute program in Hebrew, partially funded by Poland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
"Poland is the most pro-Israeli country in the world," said Jaroslaw Nowak, deputy to Lodz Mayor Kropiwnicki in charge of relations with Israel and the Diaspora.
Yet many Jews harbor a seething, deep-seated hostility toward Poland that won't dissipate, no matter how many decades have passed since the Holocaust and or how markedly it contradicts the attitudes and behavior of present-day Poles.
"Jews in Poland felt they were betrayed by their neighbors, by people who had been their friends, and that betrayal looms larger than the betrayal by the Nazis, from whom they expected nothing," said Michael Berenbaum, Holocaust scholar and director of the Sigi Ziering Institute at American Jewish University (formerly the University of Judaism).
Berenbaum also explained that the totality of the violence in Poland -- the scope, intensity and speed, with essentially 90 percent of Poland's more than 3.3 million Jews wiped out in a matter of 14 months -- also fuels the intense loathing. And since a majority of the world's Jews trace their roots to Poland, the impact is personal and enormous.
Additionally, many questions concerning Poland's role in World War II remain unanswered. What really happened on July 10, 1941, in the town of Jedwabne, where at least 340 Jews were murdered by the local population, about 300 of whom were burned alive in a barn? And what instigated the pogrom at Kilce on July 4, 1946, where, of the 200 Jews who had returned home after the war, a Polish mob murdered 37 and wounded more than 80?
While Poland has passed legislation dealing with the return of communal Jewish property, survivors and heirs remain frustrated that the government still has not devised a way to compensate individuals whose private property was confiscated by the Nazis or later by the communists. And many people believe that anti-Semitism is too embedded in the Polish psyche to ever be overcome.
Still, 62 years after the Holocaust -- almost three generations later -- and more than 17 years after the fall of communism, Poland is a place where each summer since 1988 the Jewish Festival of Culture in Krakow has attracted thousands of visitors. A new Museum of the History of Polish Jews will break ground this summer, for which the land and much of the $33 million cost were donated by the Warsaw City Council and the Polish government.
And because it is a place where Jewish life flourished and enjoyed relative safety for 800 to 1,000 years, a place that gave birth to the Ba'al Shem Tov and modern Chasidism and a place where more than 60 percent of all Jews can trace their ancestry, there is tremendous potential for tourism. So, naturally, Poland wants the word out.
That was the thinking recently when Poland's Ministry of Foreign Affairs invited a group of 11 American Jews -- including Rabbi Steve Leder of Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Cantor Roz Barak of Temple Emanu-El in San Francisco, members of the American Jewish Committee in Los Angeles and Houston, as well as this reporter -- on a trip to explore Jewish life in Poland today.
Accompanied by Los Angeles Polish Consul General Krystyna Tokarska-Biernacik, the trip was designed to show Poland's vibrant and emerging Jewish life. Its mission was also to dispel American Jews' stereotypes of Poland and Poles by examining historical fact and fiction, as well as modern misconceptions.
For starters, there is Jewish life in Poland.
Just walk into the Lauder-Morasha Jewish Primary and Middle School in Warsaw, which began as a preschool with seven children in 1989. Today, 240 students, ages 3 to 16, are actively engaged in Jewish and secular learning. Student-made Stars of David and mezuzahs adorn the hallways, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet circle the classrooms like wallpaper borders and the boys sport brightly colored kippahs.
The new head of school, Rabbi Maciej Pawlak, 29, who took the helm in September 2006 and who was educated at New York's Yeshiva University, is the country's first young Polish-born rabbi since World War II.
At Beit Warszawa, Poland's first post-war liberal synagogue, on any Friday night, 50 or more primarily young, casually dressed Jewish Poles welcome Shabbat by singing "Hinej Ma Tow" and "Szalom Alejchem," among other songs and prayers, the Hebrew words transliterated into Polish.